Volume VII - In an Eastern Rose Garden
THE MYSTERY OF BREATH
To a mystic the subject of breath is the deepest of all the subjects with which mysticism or philosophy is concerned, because breath is the most important thing in life. The very life of man is breath. He lives in the presence of breath, and in the absence of breath man is called a corpse. After death the organs of the body are just the same as before; the only thing that is lacking is breath.
Breath is that within ourselves which keeps all the parts of the body in connection with one another, working together, depending upon one another; it is that which enables man to move, to put his muscles into action, to keep the whole mechanism of the body at work. There is no other force or power concerned with all this than the power of breath.
Mystics know that it is regularity of breath that brings good health; that irregularity of breath is the cause of all illness. Many teachers and students of physical culture know that it is not the exercises and practices of this culture that cause the muscles to develop, that impart strength and vigor to the body. They know, as did the ancient mystics in India, that it is a matter of the breath. To practice for one moment with the help of the breath will do more than a whole day's exercises carried on without considering the help of the breath. In the latter case the muscles cannot be developed, whereas in the former case the physical body is easily developed with little physical practice. That this is true, is easily shown by looking at the porters at railway-stations in India. If physical labor were the only thing needed to develop muscles, would they not all be veritable Sandows?1
In India we can study particularly well how men work with heavy things. Sometimes a man will carry on his shoulder a burden that it would ordinarily be impossible for a man of his physique to carry. Yet such a man cannot only lift it, but he will walk with it. And when one watches him one will find that the secret lies in his way of breathing. If he did not breathe correctly he could not possibly carry such a weight over the shortest distance. There was in India a man called Rama Muti. He could lift elephants and stop motorcars running at speed. When this man, who was not extraordinary in build, was asked where he got his gigantic strength, for he looked like an ordinary human being, not like a monster, he said, 'You know, and yet you do not know. The secret lies in the breath, which is all power.'
As man cannot see it he does not believe in the possibility of breath giving power. He attaches importance only to the things he can see hear and touch. He is so material that he cannot see anything beyond what his physical eyes are able to see. He is like a blind person who can only feel and not see. He cannot see that strength is something greater than a rock. How difficult it is for a man to perceive the truth of the Bible saying, which says that faith will remove mountains. He thinks that mountains are stronger than faith. He wonders how faith can be stronger than the rocks and the mountains. Man cannot lift the mass of a mountain; surely the mountain is stronger than faith! The idea is too subtle, too fine for him to understand.
And it is the same with all other fine and subtle things in life. So much more importance is given to the study of the material sciences, while the spiritual, the higher knowledge, is neglected. More importance is always given to the development of bodily strength. Therefore, when a man goes to the seaside, often the first thing he does is weigh himself, so he can find out how many pounds he has gained during his holiday. He never thinks how little time it will take to lose all the pounds again. The weight he has gained at the seaside he will lose again. He does not understand that it is energy that makes a person move and feel active and in good health, not the bodily weight. Is it not true that the addition of weight to the body makes him feel lazy and comfort seeking, and often results in illness? And yet how pleased how many people are when they have gained in weight!
Then we consider the mind, we find that breath has to do with mind also. The mystic knows that the breath which we perceive by inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils is not the essential breath, but only the result of a current which runs not only through the body, but also through all the planes of man's existence. That which the nostrils feel is the result of the activity of breath. Were it not so we could not explain how the mind, which is so much vaster and finer than the body, and is a separate element, can possibly exert an effect on the body, and the body on the mind.
Every passion, every emotion has its effect upon the mind; and every change of mind, however slight, has its effect upon a man's body. Physicians in all ages have recognized that consumption is often the outcome of constant worry.
What keeps mind and body connected? What keeps the mind always active? What gives the mind its vigor to create imaginations, to create thoughts, and not only to create them but to retain them by the faculty we call memory, to keep the knowledge gained by the faculty we call reason, to possess emotions which can sometimes be felt and sometimes not felt? Where does the mind keep all these things? What force can it be that is behind them all? Is it not the breath? That is why the mystic studies and realizes and masters the breath, in order to master not only the physical body but also the mind.
From the mystical point of view, it is evident, that there is some strength, some current, some affinity, which runs through and binds together all the trees and plants in a forest, and which also causes the desert to be without them; which causes the coal-mine to have coal, the gold-mine to have gold, the sulfur-mine to have sulfur in them. This strength, or force, draws all these elements together.
So it is too with the tides of the sea. It accounts for the waters running in the same direction, where at first they tended towards the south, the east, the west, or the north; it accounts for the surface of the waves keeping a rhythm. Wherever we look, be it the changes of the seasons, the changes of the weather, or even the constant circles which the earth describes on its journey, all these show the same underlying current, the current of the whole of nature, which is the real breath. The whole universe is going on with a certain rhythm; there is a current which keeps the whole universe going. It is one breath, and yet it is many breaths.
There is a tide which has a cycle of forty days, and a tide which has a cycle of seven days, and another of thirty days; and yet at every moment waves are rising and falling. There is a wave under the wave, and a wave over the wave. There is a tide that turns twice a day, and also a tide which turns once a month. So is it with breath: one breath, and yet many breaths.
Then consider how the trees keep together. One tree, and yet its branches and its fruits and its flowers all turn in different directions. Every branch takes a different direction, and yet all keep together. What is it that directs the vigor and the strength of one branch and not the others in that direction, for they are all attached to the same tree-stem? Is it not that life-current which runs through it that directs their ways? As long as it runs through a tree it produces fruit and flowers.
So it is with animals and birds and man. The same current of life runs through all. Man is the ideal being, as the scripture says. He is ideal because intelligence is given to him to perceive the secret of this breath, whereas from animals and birds it is hidden. The life of all creatures is mysterious and full of wonder, but man alone is blessed with the intelligence, which conveys the power of understanding the secret of the breath. If there is anything more lasting than our transitory life it is this, the secret of our being. It is by this that man is able to master life both here and in the hereafter.
Having understood this truth, mystics have been able to teach that the religion of all religions is the knowledge of self, for the knowledge of self brings the knowledge of life. This life-current which runs through the center of mans being, attaching mind to body and all other planes of existence as well, it is this that is all-important. It passes from man's innermost being out to the body, which is the instrument whereby man is able to experience life on the surface. When he has knowledge of this man begins to realize, 'I am not as small as I had thought, not as weak as I had thought; I am much stronger on other planes. I can live much longer than I could on the physical plane. I can see myself on all the different planes by means of that inner knowledge called the breath.'
Therefore, to the mystic breath is like a lift, a lift in which he rises up to the first floor, and then to the second, and then to the third floor, in fact wherever he wishes to go.
The mystery of the Sphinx, and the mystery of Buraq, which is mentioned in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, has to do with this. When the Prophet reached the court, or gate, of God, the Buraq was sent. The Buraq was an animal with wings, and the Prophet rode upon it in order to reach the gate of the highest heaven. He passed through gate after gate as he passed the seven heavens. In the end he arrived at he gate of the highest.
What does this allegory mean? The body of this Buraq is this physical body. The wings represent the ability of the breath to reach far and yet retain its physical connection with the body. The Prophet mounting upon its back represents any soul who treads the spiritual path. Whoever has courage, whoever has faith, whoever has confidence, whoever has trust, whoever has patience and hope and perseverance, can tread this path and make use of the vehicle of the breath.
If we read the history of the Buddha, who was a yogi, we shall find that without yoga and without spiritual meditation, which is accomplished by breath, no one in this world has ever attained spiritual perfection. The healing power of Christ, the magnetism of Muhammad, the miraculous power of Moses, the charm of Krishna and the inspiration of Buddha – all these were attained by breath. And how did they attain them if there were not a current passing between us on the earth and the source of energy, the source of power and magnetism?
Is it not plain that breath conveys even the words which go out from our lips to the ears of the hearer? The voice is breath. The word is breath. Without breath speech cannot be produced. And yet a person may easily accept this and acknowledge that it is true that it is breath that does this, but he will not willingly believe that thought also is breath. He can see the movement of air, which arises from speech, and he wonders if it is meant that thought also causes a movement in the air. This is because he does not understand that a life-current runs through it all, and that is breath. It is easily seen when it manifests itself upon the physical plane, but on the higher planes it is not seen. Yet, it extends higher than the planes. If there is anything that connects man with God, if there is anything that connects the mortal with the immortal, it is this bridge which we call breath. It is a bridge whereby to pass from the world of mortality to the world of immortality. It is the bridge whereby immortality passes down to mortality. That life which seems mortal is really the ray of immortal life. What seems mortal is only the shell. It is not life that is mortal, it is the cover that makes it seem mortal.
From the time when man first perceived that there was a secret in breath, he has wanted to use his understanding of the secret in order to be able to perform wonders and reach the spirits, to master the elements, read thoughts, convey thoughts, and to perform any psychic or occult phenomena. But to seek to do these things is to give pearls to buy pebbles. How wasteful to spend life in gaining these powers when breath is the rope that takes us from this mortal plane to immortality, that saves us from the struggles and worries of this transitory life, and leads us to the happiness and joy and peace for which every soul longs! If breath can accomplish these pearls, will it not also accomplish the small things, the pebbles, the worldly needs? Yes, it will. After all, to have performed a few wonders is nothing.
One man is perhaps striving all day to earn his own bread so that he may live in a comfortable manner. Another is always worrying about how to maintain himself and his children. Another is thinking, 'What can I do to save my fellow man from his trouble?' If we compare these people, in order to see who is the greatest, we see that he is greatest whose ideal is greatest.
When we consider that great heroes of the past and present, those whom we admire and to whom we look with hope for right guidance, we shall find that what has made them great has been the greatness of their ideal. The lower the ideal, the less the efforts. The higher the ideal, the greater the life. If we use all our intelligence and strength and wisdom to accomplish some little thing, it is only a waste of life. To consider what great things one can accomplish, to seek to do those things which will be most useful and valuable to others, that is the ideal life. The man who has earned money only to keep himself comfortable, what has he accomplished with his life? If he has just gratified his wish to roam about in a motorcar, to set up a comfortable home, to have people waiting upon him; he cannot be happy, because he has not accomplished anything with his life. He may possess many houses, he may possess much money in the bank, he may make a great name. But, it will amount to nothing in comparison with the man whose power is greater than all wealth, position, or fame. Such a man will be much happier with the small things of the world. He has gained that peace with which the pleasures and transitory joys of this earth offer no comparison.
The one life is like the lips touching a cup of delicious wine. The other life is like drinking the whole cup full of heavenly wine. What a difference between just touching the wine with the lips, and drinking it! The pleasures of life are like touching the wine. The experience of these pleasures is only like a dream, a passing joy. It comes and goes again. One longs for the joy of that little pleasure to stay. But how can it stay? Even if one tried for thousands of years, one could not keep the happiness which is external. The only way to obtain the eternal bliss, is to do as the mystics do, and to rise by the aid of the breath from plane to plane, finding greater joy and greater happiness.
It resembles the taking of a drug. A person may sit in meditation, and dream and imagine he is very happy. A materially minded person may easily say that a meditative person hypnotizes himself into thinking he is full of joy, but is it not hypnotism when a little world of flattery pleases one, when a little silver and gold produces such a change of expression in one's countenance? The materialist, not understanding this, will laugh at the mystic and call him a dreamer, but if the mystic is a dreamer, what is the worldly man? Is he not a dreamer too? What produces the joy in these things that are of no importance? If it is good to be hypnotized by silver and gold, is it not better when the mystic is hypnotized by his divine ideal of perfection? The silver and gold will certainly be snatched away. At least the mystic's ideal of God will last.
When we consider how this life and our environment can cramp and restrict us, we understand how it is that with all our hopes we still seek solitude, try to be by ourselves, and close our eyes to all the passing things. The life and activity which are directed to experiencing the pleasures of life, the transitory sources of joy and pleasure, all fade away before that which we seek in solitude, where we strive to reach the inner and enduring things. Even if our bed is comfortable, if our house contains all the comforts that the heart can desire, the mind still goes through all manner of torments, and sleep will not come. We may take a little rest, and sit still in order to obtain peace. But the real trouble never goes. It is to drown this trouble that people take drugs and intoxicants, and lose themselves in the pursuit of common things, however undesirable. Everybody strives to obtain some remedy which will enable him to realize the joy and pleasure and peace which his inner life unconsciously seeks. But he cannot get it. If he tries to obtain it through drugs or intoxicants, he only becomes a slave to them. If, failing these, he seeks to gain his desire through other vices, he will never find the contentment he seeks.
Come to the mystic, then, and sit with him when you are tired of all these other remedies that you have employed in vain; come and take a glass of wine with him. The mystic wine is the inner absorption, which removes all the worries and anxieties and troubles and cares of the physical and mental plane. All these are now done away with forever. It is the mystic who is at rest. It is he who experiences that happiness which others do not experience. It is he who teaches the way to attain that peace and happiness which are the original heritage of man's soul.
1 - Eugene Sandow, famous as a 'strong-man' and inventor of a system of physical fitness in the early 1900's.